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Ultranationalist likely Israel's new top diplomat

An Israeli politician who based his election campaign on baiting the country's Arab minority now seems likely to become the Jewish state's top diplomat.
Image: Israeli Yisrael Beiteinu party leader Avigdor Lieberman
Avigdor Lieberman gave the support of his Yisrael Beitenu party to Benjamin Netanyahu and is expected to become foreign minister.Menahem Kahana / AFP-Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

An Israeli politician who based his election campaign on baiting the country's Arab minority, drawing accusations that he is a racist demagogue, now seems likely to become the Jewish state's top diplomat.

U.S., European and moderate Arab officials have maintained public silence on the issue of Avigdor Lieberman's ascent, but privately acknowledge serious concern.

An emerging coalition deal expected to be wrapped up in the coming days would anoint Lieberman foreign minister at a time when Israel's international image is suffering from its bloody war in Gaza and last month's election of a hawkish government likely to be at odds with would-be Mideast peacemakers.

Lieberman, a 50-year-old immigrant from the former Soviet Union, has said Palestinian prisoners should be drowned in the Dead Sea, that Israeli-Arab lawmakers who meet Palestinian militants should be executed and that the president of Egypt could "go to hell."

His Yisrael Beitenu movement emerged as the third-largest party in the Knesset, or parliament, in a Feb. 10 election, with a platform that would require members of Israel's Arab minority to swear loyalty to the Jewish state or lose their citizenship.

Deal expected within days
Spokesmen for both Lieberman and Israeli Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu confirmed the two men have already agreed that Lieberman will become foreign minister in the next government as part of a deal expected to be signed within days.

"It's not over until it's over. But I assume at this point now that it's a done deal," said Danny Ayalon, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington who is now a lawmaker in Lieberman's party.

The new government is expected to be sworn in next week, according to officials from Yisrael Beitenu and Netanyahu's Likud Party.

Lieberman's defenders insist the world has nothing to worry about, pointing out he now supports Palestinian independence and is a secularist who wants to limit the power of Israel's religious establishment.

Still, serious questions are being raised about his appointment as foreign minister.

Two U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity so as not to appear to be meddling in Israeli affairs, said potential problems relating to Lieberman's appointment have been discussed at high levels in the Obama administration. "There is concern Arab nations won't want to deal with him," said one of the officials.

An EU official, also speaking on condition of anonymity for the same reason, said European leaders have taken note "of the terrible statements he has made about Arab Israelis."

'Vulgar words'
Mohammed Bassiouni, an Egyptian lawmaker and former ambassador to Israel, said Lieberman's "vulgar words" about Egypt are less important than what the new government's policies will be. That was a more sanguine assessment than that of Egyptian analyst Emad Gad, who called Lieberman a "racist and extremist."

Syrian analyst Imad Fawzi Showaibi, whose statements often reflect his country's official thinking, said he believes Lieberman would not be able to torpedo any serious international push for Arab-Israeli peace.

"I think that there are only two choices for Lieberman," Showaibi said. "Either he would be tamed and enter the peace process as an active element or he will be kicked out of the (Israeli) political equation."

Compared to other ultranationalists
Arab-Israeli lawmaker Ahmed Tibi, who has frequently clashed with Lieberman in parliament, is among those who have compared Lieberman to France's Jean-Marie Le Pen and the late Austrian ultranationalist Jorg Haider because of his alleged scapegoating of a powerless minority.

"It's a challenge in front of the Arab world and the entire world," Tibi said. "Who will be the Arab official to shake hands with Lieberman?"

This would not be Lieberman's first Cabinet post. He served as deputy prime minister and minister of strategic affairs in the current government until resigning in January 2008 over Israel's participation in U.S.-backed peace talks with the Palestinians.

Lieberman's support for Palestinian independence comes with a catch. He wants to transfer heavily populated Arab areas within Israel to Palestinian sovereignty, a move that could strip hundreds of thousands of Arabs of their Israeli citizenship, regardless of their own feelings on the matter.

Lieberman's two most visible campaign slogans during the latest election were "Without loyalty there is no citizenship" and "Only Lieberman understands Arabic." Both were widely seen as not-so-veiled attacks on Israel's Arab citizens, who make up some 20 percent of Israel's population of 7 million.

Denies racism
In a recent article in the New York-based Jewish Week newspaper, Lieberman denied allegations of racism.

"I stand at the head of the most diverse political party in the Knesset," he wrote, pointing out that Yisrael Beitenu's parliamentary list includes women, people with disabilities, a Druse Arab, a convert to Judaism and a religious Zionist. "I find it a bit rich to be called a bigot."

Ayalon, the former ambassador, predicted his man will have no problem as foreign minister.

"Once he meets with world leaders, once he meets with media from all over the world, people will see him and engage with him and they will understand what quality he has," Ayalon said.

That is not a view shared by many American Jews, some of whose leaders have come out strongly against Lieberman's ideas.

Writing in the Jewish daily Forward, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, leader of Reform Jews in the U.S., called Lieberman's latest campaign "outrageous, abominable, hate-filled" and "brimming with incitement."